A Million Mutinies: Raising India's Environmental Awareness

A Million Mutinies: Raising India's Environmental Awareness

Save Oil, Save Future, Chandigarh, India (Nice Logo/Flickr)

New York: December 14, 2000

Speaker:
Sunita Narain
Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi

Moderator:
Shyama Venkateswar
Senior Program Officer
Asian Social Issues Program, Asia Society

The program is followed by a Question and Answer Session

Shyama Venkateswar

I'd like to introduce Sunita Narain from the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. Sunita is very well known in the environmental world and she's also an active participant in various campaigns for clean air and water management.

Along with several publications, the most recent one is entitled “Green Politics: Global Environmental Negotiations.” The talk today will focus on the current environmental challenges in India. In the past 20 years, India's GDP has doubled but it has also increased associated environmental costs -- greater pollution, greater stresses on natural resources, greater consumption patterns and so forth. So, really, the critical questions that need to be examined today and I understand that Sunita will touch on them, are: How do we reconcile these--growth and associated costs? How should decision making processes be structured? Who are the actors? Who are the stakeholders? How can they be formally involved in the decision making process? And finally, what is the role of collective action and community responses to some of these challenges?

This afternoon's seminar, many of you may know, is part of Asia Society's new, exciting, timely initiative, called the Asian Social Issues Program. The program specifically looks at various kinds of environmental and social challenges facing parts of Asia.

Sunita Narain

I'm delighted to be here to share with you something of what is going on and what we're doing in Delhi. I work in Delhi. I work in the Centre for Science and Environment. We essentially do what we call today knowledge-based activism. We're a kind of mix between if you were to put together World Watch Institute with a sort of State of the World report. We do the State of Environment reports. And I don't know if any one of you have seen our reports called “The State of India's Environment Citizens' Reports.” They're fairly detailed reports from a point of view of people in terms of what's happening to resources. But we're also partly a policy-research organization. So we sort of like PRI (Public Radio International) mixed into World Watch. And then, of course, we combine a co-function which is advocacy. So we're a bit of Green Peace as well. If you can think of a strange animal like that, that's roughly what we are in Delhi. We also bring out a fortnightly news magazine on science and environment, essentially to try and inform people in India about Science and Environment issues and we're trying to get a sense of urgency about things that need to be done.

I share with you today things that we have been working on and thinking about and things that are happening in India today. It's very clear, and there's no doubt about it, that India's environment is in a state of crisis today. And the state, the political system, has really failed to address problems of literacy, poverty and resource management. But what is very interesting and I think that really, to me, gives us optimism in terms of the future is what that has led to is the increasing role and the importance of the community and non-state actors to both intervene and demand for change.

Given the fact that India is a fairly vibrant democracy, we also get supported very much by the judiciary and the media which are the other two pillars in terms of managing the country's system. I'm also going to talk about issues in terms of some of the rural challenges and some of the urban challenges because really they're distinct. And one of the key issues that we face in India is the fact that, over the years, the Indian government has really followed a very colonial way of managing our natural resources, which has legally excluded local communities from control or management decisions.It's particularly important because environment in a country like India is not a luxury but a basic survival for people. And this is something very important to understand because in most parts of the north, the environmental movement has been distinct from the developmental movement in the US or in Europe for example. The environmental movement has been far more conservationist in its ethic whereas, in countries like India, resources are a part of communities' systems of management. And therefore, we have a far more utilitarian base in terms of how we manage our environment. And the entire environmental movement has been far more developmental in its perspective of what needs to be done. It's also important because in a country like India, people literally live on the environment. The environment isn't something that you talk about after you've had it in a book but having some trees and some tigers. It's the very basis of well-being. You live on the land, the water, the building material, the bio-diversity in terms of the medicinal plants. Your other issues of survival literally come from the environment. And that's what we've often said that really an indicator of economic well-being should not be the gross national product, which is how countries measure economic progress, but the gross nature product.

It's also important to recognize that this is something that we're learning in terms of what needs to be done for the future but exclusion was not the way of the past. If you look at water, for instance, the British, when they came to India, called India “hydrological society,” simply because it's an interesting thing to note that it only rains about 100 hours in India. And therefore what you're talking about is a system in which you can store, collect and distribute water. And there are two parts of India which are very fascinating to be able to compare. Most Indians have grown up being told that we have the wettest place on earth. India is the wettest, the tallest of everything. And well, we are the wettest place on earth. The wettest place on earth is a place called Cherapunji which is in Meghalaya. And it gets 15 meters of rainfall annually. And yet, if you go to Cherapunji and you go to a certain guest house in Cherapunji there's a sign that says, “Water is scarce. Please use it carefully.” And yet, there's another part of India -- the desert of India, Jaisalmer, which is at the edge of the desert adjoining Pakistan. And there, it only rains about 100 millimeters of rainfall. So from 15 meters to 100 millimeters and yet Jaisalmer has never known to be evacuated because of lack of water. And therefore, for us, the big issue has been in India to say, “It's not just the quantum of water but really the wisdom in how to use it, how you store it and how you distribute water.” So what you really need to do is to re-create some of the traditional systems of water management in which communities played an essential role in terms both of management as well the distribution.

But what we're also seeing in India is that water has become a starting point for change in many of the really outstanding experiments thatwe're seeing in rural India. It's important to see both the crisis aswell as the response to the crisis that we're seeing today. And the response to the crisis really is from local communities, invariably a good non-governmental organization, but then essentially talking about the kind of institutional strengthening at the local level in which ecological regeneration leads to economic change. And, in many of these villages that you're talking about whether it is Sukhomajri Village, near Chandigarh or Raleganshiddi Village in Maharashtra you're talking about incredible economic change built on the good management of land and water resources. And this really becomes something as a way ahead for a country which is really talking about how is it going to deal with constant and recurring doubts as we have today.

Soit's important to see this from a point of view of how communities are reasserting their village. Many people are part of the Chipko movement,but I don't think many people understand the Chipko movement, which isreally a movement high in the Himalayas where women were hugging treesto protect them from the loggers who would come there, was not a conservationist movement. It was not a movement to protect the trees.It was really a movement to assert rights over who will have the rightto cut the trees. So what the women were really saying was that, “It is not that we don't want the trees to be cut, but we have the right to cut the trees -- these are our trees.” And therefore, as I said before, the environmental movement in India has been very developmental in its perspective. The issue has been very much how do we use the natural resources. How do we use them and what is the political economy inwhich we will control the change? And that is really the issue in terms of the environmental movement.

If you look at another case, which is very close to Delhi where Tarun Bharat Sangh which is in Alwar District. In 1980 the johadswhich are local water harvest instructors -- I talked to you earlier about traditional water harvesting systems and they were really built on the ethic of rain-water harvesting, as we call it. But when they built these johads, the irrigation department came in and said that they were illegal. And they said that they should be broken down because, by law, every drain in India belongs to the government. Andit's part of the system of management in which you essentially appropriate the rights to govern natural resources and in which you say that the local communities really do not have the ability to be able to manage resources which are in their own backyard. When the same area or village planted trees, it was called illegal because, again, under the Revenue Act, if you were to plant trees on revenue land, even if it was degraded land across -- lost to your village, it would be illegal. And if it was forest land, you would go to jail as per Indian law.

But what has been amazing in most of these cases is that people have just continued doing what they want to do. And the state has had to essentially say that it can do very little about it. In 1990, it wasreally incredible to see that these villages then through these local rain-harvesting structures regenerated entire rivers. And this has really been one of the most fantastic things to see. We took the Indian President -- I don't know if you heard about this but we do an annual award to the best environmental community -- village community. And we gave the first award to this village because of the rainfall harvesting structures they've done. They've brought to life three rivers in the desert. I mean, this is the most incredible thing to see. When you could see that the river was a perennial river but it used to flow just about two to three months in a year. And because of the structures they've made, the river now flows the entire year. And, we took the --we invited the Indian President, we asked him if he would give the award to the community and he is a very sweet man and so he said, yes,he would. And then we went back to him and said that everybody comes to Rashtrapati Bhavan which is the presidential palace to take an award. Isn't it time you went to a community and gave them the award? And itwas quite an experience to take him to this village community, which has done rainwater harvesting. And because of which it has regenerated its rivers to get the President of India to give them an award.

But what also -- and this what I want to make as a point -- the point that I've been making about the exclusion of local communities is that the same village had a problem because they had regenerated the river, they now had water. And now that they had water, the bureaucracy came in and said they wanted to auction the river because they wanted to give out fishing rights. And it's very unusual because this village is actually a pure vegetarian village. It's called Hamirpura, which is a Muslimname. But it's a pure vegetarian village. And it's culturally, in any case, a problem for them too because the river regenerated. And now you're saying you're going to give it out for fishing. And so there was a huge protest, and we were involved with it and things like that. But, the villagers then decided that they would not allow the government to auction the river. But they also decided to form a River Parliament. And so they essentially have agreed that upstream/downstream negotiations will take place by this River Parliament in terms of how much water will be withdrawn, what season will be withdrawn. They're now even deciding what crops will be grown because this is a very drought-prone region. And therefore, what crops you grow and how water consuming the crops will also determine how much water you take out of the river and therefore how much water will go down to the downstream users. And it's a fascinating organization that has now been created.

And so essentially what we've been now doing -- and we've been doing a lotof work from pushing the Indian government to understand that when you're talking about water management, you really have to rectify the two discontinuities of the last century which is the fact that you have not focused on rain water and the fact that you had gone out of community management of water. And that's been, just interesting, to see that over the year how much response we have got both from the political system as well as from local communities -- but particularly the political system, which is really understanding to date. But the only way that it'll be able to drought-proof India is if it moves towards some of these systems in which communities can again control the resources.

But as I said, at the end of the day, the example still remains, and thisis because we constantly say that the system disables people from managing their environment. Success is not because of the government but really in spite of the government. And this is why the lesson in India and the message in India, as far as the environmental movement really is, that water management or trees or anything else is not about planting trees or even check dams but really about deepening participatory democracy. And therefore, what we're talking about in terms of environmental management is the type of institutions, the type of funding systems, the changing of the legal systems in which communities have far greater right over the management of their resources. And that's become a key issue of the Indian Environmental Movement.

But on the other hand -- and this is an area in which, frankly, we havemuch greater sense of pessimism and despair in terms of what are we going to do. Because what we're also seeing is growing pollution and toxification of the environment. And this is something that is frightening quite a few of us because we have -- we never anticipated the scale of change that we would see and so fast. I mean, it's not surprising really because we've all sort of -- we all sort of understood that the western industrial model, which we have adopted as well, is extremely toxic. I mean, it uses a lot of energy and material and it leads to huge amounts of waste and pollution. And therefore what you need is greater amounts of investment and discipline. But, and I've come to -- what are the issues? But if you look at it today, every city in India is really gasping for air. We did an estimation of what was the impact of air pollution on people in Delhi and we found that the death toll -- literally the number of people die would be about 10,000 each year just because of particle pollution. And this is not taking benzene or lead or anything else that we might have in the air. So that's why it's about a person an hour.

We have very high levels of SPM which are respiratory suspended particle matter. I'm sure many of you have heard of PM 10. You have a major case going on in the US, for instance, on PM 2.5 standards today, which is in the Supreme Court, which will determine what will be the standard-setting systems for the future. But, that's a key issue for us today because PM 10 which is Particle Matter of 10 Microns or less, and really what people are talking about PM 1 and PM 2 are very high annocities. And that's partly because of the fact that we have a lot of vehicles. And a city like Delhi, for instance, 70% of its pollutioncomes from vehicles. And it's not really surprising and this is whatwe've all come to understand, that if you look at the '70s and the'80s, Southeast Asia and East Asia grew at a rate that was unprecedented and today this region is the most polluted. And this is something that the World Bank, for instance, has done studies with Thailand which shows that when the Thai economy doubled during the'80s, the total pollution load grew by 10 times. When we did a study for India, taking that same model, we found that our economy had doubled over the period '75 to '95. So we've had a longer period in terms of doubling.

It would be interesting to repeat the study now because we've had an acceleration of our economical and industrial economic program. But with this study, we found that in the 20 years that the economy doubled, the industrial pollution load went up 4 times and the vehicle pollution load went up 8 times. We're talking about a massive change and a massive impact on health, as an aside to this. But again, as I say, it's not surprising at all. We should have anticipated this. If you look at the past and you look at the ecological history of the world, you'll find that in the First World War period you did see an economic boom in Europe, Japan and North America and, therefore, you had cities right from Tokyo to Los Angeles which were choking under pollution. And what you did was to respond to this with increasing investment in pollution control. It's estimated that in the '70s, Japan spent 25% of all industrial investment in pollution control measures. And you've seen that more and more when it comes to increasing toxification of the environment across this part of the world, the question that we have to ask in India is will we have the necessary investment to make in cleaning up our environment? In the '90s when India was industrializing we were far poorer-- on a much lower per capita income -- then in the west, when the industrialization tookplace. So you had funds and money to invest in terms of new technologies. The question for us, therefore, is will we have the necessary money but, more than that, will we have the necessary ability? Because pollution demands a high order of governance and discipline. Will we have the ability to do that?

Theone thing again, and this is what I constantly focus again and again onbecause that's the one thing that gives us a tremendous sense of hopein terms of India, is that the check and balance that is coming in acountry like India is really coming from community pressure, again. Wehave a Green Rating Project where we rate Indian industry in terms ofits environmental impact. And we found that almost 60% of theindustries that we rated had legal cases against them. Some might haveeven been closed down for years because of community pressure. I mean,if you scan papers of the region, you must have heard that we areshopping in Delhi 3,000 factories as of this week, which are in thesmall-scale sector because these are polluting factories.

So therefore what we're seeing is enormous impact because of public pressure and because of a judiciary which now takes that public pressure and then acts on it. And that's really been able to create, to some extent, the check and the balance. But as I said, the main problem that we're finding is that the protest is still not translating into policy, and this has been the key weakness of the system, which is why we are constantly focusing on the fact that the system of governance really has to change. We need to greater de-centralization, openness and participation.

We also need technological changes in a big way. We, in India, have been constantly raising -- we have a big campaign on the right to clean air, for instance, in Delhi. And our big issue in Delhi is not just the fact that we need cleaner vehicles and we need cleaner fuel -- which is something that we're working towards and managing to get to some extent-- but we're really talking about the fact that -- who is going to be investing in the technology of the poor? If you look at our part of the world, you're going to see that the largest number of people who --vehicles on our roads are really scooters. Because the first thing that people do when they motorize is not go from a bicycle to a car but they go to scooters. And scooters, as you know, there's very little research happening on it across the world. One of the big issues for us is when is the full-scale scooter going to come in? But who's going to invest money in a full-scale scooter? Is Thailand? Is India? Is China -- which really use, in a large way, scooters which are two-stroke engines --vehicles

Comment from the Audience

I just got back from India last week and they call them automatic rickshaws. Isn't that what you mean? The three-wheelers?

Sunita Narain

The three-wheelers. Yes.

Comment from the Audience

Everything is diesel.

Sunita Narain

No, now they're also moving to CNG [Compressed Natural Gas] because of alot of pressure that we've put on. But it has a lot to do with diesel. In fact, it has been one of our biggest problems -- our biggest campaign has been really to get rid of diesel in cities. And we've been fairly successful in the sense that the court has now ordered that 10,000 buses will move to CNG by April next year. And of course, they're --

Comment from the Audience

There were 30,000 automatic --

Sunita Narain

No, 75,000.

Comment from the Audience

Well, I mean in one city.

Sunita Narain

In Delhi.

Comment from the Audience

I didn't mean Delhi. I was in the south, too.

Sunita Narain

Okay.

Comment from the Audience

I mean between the cabs and the automatic rickshaws.

Sunita Narain

Yes, there's very little space to move. CNG is compressed natural gas which you also have now in New York. You have some buses running on CNG, as well in New York. And it's been a big part of our campaign to move towards CNG because it's a cleaner fuel. And it's been amazing to see the amount of pressure we've had. We had a $25 million suit against us from a major automobile company because we were fighting diesel. It was withdrawn in a week with an apology. But that's the sense of Indian democracy which I'm very proud of.

But it's a major problem that we have. Diesel is a big problem because diesel is the one that emits the small particles. And I talked about PM 10 being a problem. For us the problem also is the fact that you have the distortion in price taking place, because diesel is kept cheaper for the poor and the agricultural sector and for mass transit. But on the other hand, because it is kept cheaper, you have every car maker now which is coming in for the diesel variant. So, just like you have a problem here with SUVs, we have a similar problem of diesel-makers coming in. So whether it's Toyota or whether it's a Ford or whether it is a Telco which is an Indian company or whether it is the Koreans, everyone is coming in with the Diesel variant -- essentially to make sure that they can find that niche which is mega-class looking for a cheaper ride. And that's been a big campaign that we've had -- to try and get rid of that. We've not been able to ban the diesel car, which has been our dream, but we've definitely been able to get a lot of orders in terms of getting the court to order the fact that now all buses have to move to CNG. All auto-rickshaws have to move to CNG. All taxis have to move to CNG. And, diesel prices are now going up. So a combination of all that has led to less dieselization and hopefully a cleaning up of the air. CNG is cheaper than diesel. That's also because it's not subsidized like diesel is but because it's a clean fuel, we've at least been able to make sure that the government has given some concessions on taxes on CNG. But it is cheaper. And it's definitely cleaner because it does not have particulates as you see in diesel. And that's been a big issue in cities.

It requires a different kind of automation. But now with petrol it's very easy to be able to get a CNG car. But diesel is a problem. And now, across the world now there's a lot of work now, on this. Everyone is talking about the fact that until the fuel-cell vehicles come onto the road, the next real innovation, in terms of cleaning air, will really be in gases. And that's why you're seeing now a lot of pressure, in the US, particularly, there's been a lot of pressure to move both into LPG as well as CNG -- a lot of benefits. And that, people are predicting as the battle that we will have for the next 10, 15 years. Because one of the big issues that all of us face, the problem is that when you're already tightening standards here and the tightening of diesel standards, for instance, as in California, by the year 2004, you will not be able to have diesel vehicles there, in the current technology, unless they leapfrog into a much better technological answer to diesel.And they are talking about it today. Zero-sulphur diesel, for instance,and particulate traps. Our sulphur in our diesel is about 3,000 parts per million. You have about 35 parts per million. So just look at the difference. And when we started our campaign, we had 3,000 parts per million. In three years,we now have 500 parts per million of sulphur in our diesel. What we need is about 10 parts per million or 30 parts per million.

But the big issue for us, and this is that we are constantly bringing to the attention of government as well as policy makers is the fact that we don’t need incremental change. What we need to do now is to leapfrog into new technologies and make that transition once and for all rather than making small changes in sulphur levels, for instance, from 3000 parts to 2,500 parts and then slowly bringing it down to 30 parts permillion. Most of India is wheezing and choking and dead withrespiratory diseases, so why don't we make the big transition and go to what's clean diesel today? And this is the big issue for us is to be able to say that we have major health concerns and these health costs have an economic cost as well on society. And therefore, what we need to do is to take some hard action which will leapfrog us to clean technologies.Now that's difficult because at the end of the day we remain a poor country with difficult options to take. And the mind of the politician is still not into the issues of environment. They're still looking at it in terms of livelihoods and in terms of jobs for poor people. And that's the big issue in terms of bringing about change. And one of the things we are seeing is that politicians are learning in India, when it comes to resource management, not when it comes to pollution, but definitely when it comes to resource management.

I talked earlier about our experience with drought-proofing and water management. And similarly, we find that, for instance, Digvijay Singhwho's the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, says and this is what we feel very proud about is that he learned from civil society in terms of how land and water management needs to be done. He made the policy changes in terms of how he would manage his resources. And it's quite amazing to see Madhya Pradesh and certain parts of Madhya Pradesh the legislative changes that he's brought about in terms of resource management have brought in some very interesting answers in drought-proofing. He's also made a major investment in education. What was interesting was that two years ago he was facing elections. And everyone would say that he would not win. Every poll had said that he would lose. We had invited him to Delhi to give a keynote address atone of our seminars and I asked him why was he doing all this if he wasnot going to win elections. And he said he did this because he wanted to--typical politician-speak. And, what was fascinating was two weeks later the elections took place and he won. And we sent out our reporters to all the districts registering took place to find out why did people come out and vote and it was interesting; they came out to vote because of his land, water and education policies. And that became a very important model, to see that if a politician was to do good governance, it would pay. And that's really been the big issue for usis to get politicians to understand this.

I have a lot more faith in Indian politicians than bureaucracy. I have a much greater sense of being able to say that we can influence them.They can understand what makes good electoral promises as well. And that you do see change if they get convinced. And, really the big challenge for all of us Indians is really how do we make India's democracy work even more? When you look at the environmental movement, you really understand how it's trying to tweak certain parts of India's democracy to see it work better and to see that the changes are brought about in which both the environment as well as the developmental needs of people are taken into account.

Thank you very much.

Question and Answer Session

Shyama Venkateswar

Sunitahas kindly accepted our questions. And so maybe we can just open the floor up for a couple questions and then have a chance to talk withher.

Question from the Audience

I'd be curious to know if there is anything like the Green Party or a Green Party in India.

Sunita Narain

No, because of our silly electoral system. We have the British system, which is first past the poll, and that doesn't lead to any issue-based politics. It's the same problem, for instance, if you look at Britain, it doesn't have a Green Party. However, in the European elections where issued-based politics are allowed where you can have it, there the Green Party in Britain has about over 16% of the votes. So, it's the same problem in India that we can never have a Green Party given our electoral system.

Question from the Audience

But you could have coalition votes, right?

Sunita Narain

We can, but the other question with the environment really is -- and this is what the big challenge for us is and frankly we've not been able to succeed in being able to get the politicians to understand. Environment is still seen, to a large extent, in terms of growing trees and cleaning up pollution. It's really not seen as developmental perspective in terms of water. Drought is one of the big issues forIndian politicians today. There's no politician who can stand up todayand not talk about water. I mean, every election is won or lost on the issues on things like water. Advani, who is our Home Minister, when he was standing for elections in Saurashtra in September 1999 when they were facing a very bad drought, Advani had a slogan which said, Pehle Pani Phir Advani, which means first water, then Advani. Give us water first. It's a big issue. But that's not being translated into the way politicians view the environmental issues. Also we have found that the environment is a very dispersed term and coalition. It's all over the country. Andtherefore, to bring about a regional party even which balances animportant role in coalition politics. Because if you look at India'spolitics, we don't have central parties anymore. The Congress itself issort of losing out and BJP is drastically losing out as a central party. It's really regional parties which are gaining ground in India.And therefore, if you look at the future of politics, it's very clear that the Green Party can never be a regional party. It will also be something that focuses on an all-India issue. And so, for us, the answer is really to influence politicians -- whatever shade of color they come from.

Question from the Audience

You mentioned that the environmental movement in India compared to the north is more developmental than conservation-oriented. I was wondering if the government of India is creating any national parts kind of on the American model which is conservation model. And if they've done that what the environmental movement thinks.

Sunita Narain

That's a very good question. Yes, they have. I mean, we follow very much the American model in terms of wildlife management. And what we have done is create wildlife reserves. About 3% of India's total land area is today marked for wildlife reserves. Our forest land area is about 19%-20% under ownership of the forest department. And our land for common lands, which is for all grazing -- just to give you a comparative figures-- is about 5%. So 3% of India's land is national parks and science, as we call it.

The big issue really is that we fail to understand that in India our forests are really not wilderness areas. In the US, you often call forest areas wilderness because it is true. They are wilderness areas. But in our part of the world, they're habitats. That's where people live. And people co-exist with animals and therefore the strategy that we've been left to adopt in such a densely populated country like India will not be the exclusion of the people but really the inclusion ofpeople. And we haven't done that. And it's led to huge conflicts. One of the biggest problems today in India is poaching. And poaching takes place because the poachers are greater friends of the local communities than the forest department. I'm sure all of all you have heard of Veerapan, the sandalwood smuggler who just kidnapped the film star. It was a big issue and big issue in south. This has paralyzed Bangalore which is the Tech capital of the world.

Sunita Narain

Absolutely. But you have to understand that Veerapan is the creation of a law because sandalwood has been nationalized by the government. If you area poor farmer and you have sandalwood trees growing on your farm -- and sandalwood grows like a weed in those parts of India -- if you had a sandalwood tree, you would just pluck it out and throw it away. Because you don't want it growing there. Because the minute it grows up, you get a forest, but it's a national tree. It belongs to the government.You have to go and register it with the government. They come out and mark out where the tree is growing in relation to your house or to something else. And God forbid--if that tree dies, you've had it. We have a friend who has a crocodile farm and we don't allow crocodile skin trade--crocodiles are endangered in India. And he talks about the fact that he has to eat a croc-egg omelet a day. Because the minute they get born, they get endangered. And yet, they breed like rabbits.

And,so the big issue in India is how do you bring that sort of uilitarian ethic that I talked about into government policy. And this is why I said that policy and protest still is not coming together. And that's sort of the challenge for all of us living in India. How do you influence the political system so that the protest -- which is outside the doors -- becomes the policy. We've written a lot about it. You can actually find a lot on it on our website.

Question from the Audience

Sunita, I'd like to go back to a phrase you used. Why should people invest in technologies of the poor? Sort of an odd part there is globalizing and biotechnologies and all of these things that they see as cutting edge, as scientific research. Why should people listen to technologies? It seems to always be seen as a small part of the story?

Sunita Narain

It is. But on the other hand, that's where the future of markets are. If I was in business, I would really focus on the poor and large numbers. It's the malaria story versus cancer. It's fairly the same thing.

Question from the Audience

I guess my question is at what levels, in what arenas can these standards be enforced? Does this then defend national conventions in parliament? You and I know what happened in the Hague a couple weeks ago was a complete disaster if you are looking at international conventions to enforce protocols and to sort of enforce what kinds of technologies --more Green or more sound or more participatory or more democratic. Water management going back to the people when they need to be building huge dams is much more prevalent. When we have the ear of the WorldBank and ADB (Asian Development Bank) and all these major institutions who are willing to give money to just wipe out drought with a single blow of building a huge structure.

Sunita Narain

The challenge is fascinating. Take water. Forget scooters and flush toilets and I can come to that later, but take water. It's fascinating that in a country like India which has really believed in the big dam and believed in big engineering structures, to read the same statement in Gujarat which is fighting over the Narmada dam, has the largestcheck-dam program in the world. And a very good one as well. We sentour reporters out because we weren't sure that the Gujarat governmentwas really serious about it. And we're not technology people, we don'tbelieve technology works until you have a social process which governsthe technology. And so, therefore, we wanted to really understand ifthe government really has internalized what we're talking about. Butit's not the check dam but really the village institution. Who callsfor that technology will manage it and things like that. Punjab has afascinating program. It's worth seeing. Ten-thousand check-dams werebuilt last year. They have a separate minister for small-waterharvesting which will now energize it for the future. A state likeGujarat, a state like Madhya Pradesh, I mean, the government of Indiahas itself earmarked a huge amount of money for traditional waterhouses systems.

So mysense is that there is an understanding that those small technologiesare what are very important for drought-proofing India, and that's whythey do. Now, whether they will have internalized the technology --we're saying that it's not just the technology but also the institutionwhich manages the technology -- the nature of democracy at the village level. Will it be participatory? Will it be representative? You're talking about hard political questions, governing the use of that technology. Whether the politician is going to be smart enough -- I don't know. A big legislative thing -- again, it's not. Fine, some day he will go and some better guy will come as well take his place. Or it's our job to be able to influence politicians to say, “Why is it that this thing is succeeding? And why are you failing?” In terms of water technologies, it's quite amazing to see that in spite of the paranoia over Narmada, in spite of all the chest-beating, they also have a fantastic small water harvesting program. Now where we have not entered into that dialogue and have never been able to, we don't believe in small versus big. So that's been an issue which to a certain extent has made the politician feel that this is not just saying that Narmada is the only thing we need. We've always believed that you can have Narmada ,if you need. But you first need to have your small water harvesting system. They will really drought-proof larger parts of your state.

But to go back to the larger issue in terms of why technology is for the poor. I do believe that with growing globalization you will see a growing strength of the global civil society and that is going to push the need for some technologies which may not be so much part of the market. It's not market-driven need but because you're going to see pressures coming out of civil society to some extent. Take the climate-change convention which you talked about. We have been consistent. We produced a daily newspaper in the Hague on climate change for the meeting. But, we were not at all disappointed with what came out at the meeting. Simply because in many ways what you're seeing is a re-emergence of a strong environmental ethic. You're saying you do want a certain amount --- the Kyoto protocol has to be environmentally effective. We will not compromise on some of the basic issues in the Kyoto protocol. And the break that came between the US and EU came on the issue of how weak will you make the Kyoto protocol. How acceptable is the weakening of the Kyoto protocol. Now, for us -- and the issue of technology is very key as part of the Kyoto protocol because we have been consistently arguing that what we need is equal per capita rights with the global atmosphere. But the entitlement scheme is one in which it is not for the rich of India who should be able to get the technologies which come as a result of the emission trading but really the poor of India who are not connected to the grid today.

And therefore, if you look at the future, you're really talking about large parts of--all parts of the world -- which provide the market opportunities for new technologies. If you could have an ecologically effective Kyoto protocol in which you said that the clean development mechanism, which is a mechanism between the rich and the poor countries to pay for technology transfer. If you said that all the money of theclean development mechanism would go into renewal technologies --renewable energy, then what you would see is the creation of new markets in all parts of the world for the poor to benefit. You could find ways in which the global civil society could find interesting ways of being able to use that same global system to be able to demand more rights and entitlements for very poor people.

How much is it worth? This world is not a fair world. It's not a perfect world. I think all of us have to just keep pushing at it. My only issue is that we have to be far more idealistic than pragmatic. If you want to push the system, you have to reach higher than what you can achieve today. And that's been our consistent issue when it comes to global issues or national issues, is to push the Indian government far beyond what it's willing to give us today. But, in the hope that we'll get it tomorrow.

Shyama Venkateswar

But is it then dependent on certain actors being more environmentally friendly or not? What does George Bush represent to the environmental world today? Is he somebody who can be seen to uphold Kyoto-protocol issues? Is he somebody who will dilute it even further, entrench himself in and say because he is beholden to the industry.

Sunita Narain

But if you look at it, there's no way that Mr. Gore could have got the Kyoto protocol through the Senate. We did some research and created ablow-by-blow account in terms of what's happening, what are different actors doing, what are the intense politics of these negotiations. We released the book across the world. We released it particularly in the US because we did want to influence the public opinion in the US. It'sfascinating. It's today, within six months, being taught in five universities in the US, as text. It's also something which in all ofour release functions we've found exactly the same question in terms of how do we bring about this change. We do have an extremely obdurate political system today when it comes to these issues. But we, as American public, don't feel like this. We want to find the right triggers to bring about the change.

And to me, the only answer would really lie in broadening the debate.That's the only thing we know in India. Broaden the debate, bring in more actors, make their voice more vocal, give them space so that they can say what they want to say and that will slowly bring about change in society. Doesn't come today. Doesn't come tomorrow. But it will come over time. I'm thrilled at the fact our book is now being taught because it's a fairly descriptive book. It's an analytical book. But it's written from the perspective of the south. It consistently puts forward what is our position in WTO for instance. Why is it that we don't want labor in environmental standards? But why is it we want better commodity pricing? Why is it we oppose the shrimp battle with the US NGOs? We have been consistently saying that you cannot use trade as a lever of power because it's an inequitable lever of power. What right do we have in the global system to be able to change things in the global governance center. So all these issues are in the book, andit's now being taught. It's part of official textbooks. And I'm hoping that it's an annual report. We bring it out every year. I'm hoping that that, slowly, will bring about a better understanding of what are our concerns.

Question from the Audience

I'd like to bring you back to what you said about closing factories in Delhi. I work on a comparative study of values and environmental policy. One of the research teams that works with us is from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies from Delhi. And they've been very critical of the Supreme Court decision and of the shutting down of factories. And a lot of this has just come out recently. But my understanding is that there have been tons of protests, but they have been critical that the public pressure that keeps pushing for this has come from outside of India and it's come from the middle class and that the poor and the marginalized are losing their jobs and how would you argue against that?

Sunita Narain

Well, it's a fairly traditional debate where every time you close down a factory, you have people who say what about the labor? It's a very important issue. But, if you look at the health of labor working in those factories, you really wouldn't talk about defending them, okay? I mean, we have looked at many of these factories including plastic recycling units which all the toxic fumes including Dioxin is all inthe air and the workers are working there on burning the plastic. Or you're talking about dying units or anything else the workers are working. The entire move for the relocation of industries has really come -- it's not shutting down, it's relocating industries -- it has come from two pollution cases. One pollution case which comes from the river of Yamuna because a lot of these factories end up polluting theriver. And, we have a major problem because we usually don't have any treatment systems for chemical contamination. Our treatment systems are only made for biological contaminants. So you can imagine what it's like if you are in the next city, which is Alvra downstream and you were to get Delhi's water. It would be just full of heavy metal. Or, Delhi, for instance, gets its water, which is very high in pesticides, because it gets it upstream but it gets Haryana is at the border of Delhi and it has a lot of pollution because of pesticides. It has agricultural feeds and so therefore, what you're seeing is very high intoxification of the environment. You're seeing major impacts on health. But those health impacts are not visible today. People don't buy die because it's not a Bhopal disaster where thousands die and so you shut down a factory. This is slow death. And this is why people don't articulate it because they don't understand that it's a question of livelihood but it's also a question of making sure that people don't die tomorrow because they're breathing in these toxic fumes. All the industrial units that they are working in is then leading to major environmental problems, downstream of the river or in the city of Delhi.

Now, very clearly, given the fact that I would not be a person who would say, “Shut down all units.” But I would definitely say, “If you're serious about both pollution and you're serious about workers, then let's start talking in terms of what would be the right policy framework in which small-scale units, as they are today, which are very, very small scale, very unorganized, very much operating in the illegal part of the city, how can they operate better?” The one issue that would come out very clearly is that you cannot have environmentally unfriendly industries in small-scale sector. Because small-scale sector just by the very way it is organized can never clean up pollution. You need higher order of investment in terms of putting in a common effluent treatment plant. Or you need to be able to run the common effluent treatment plant with good management systems and things like that. You can't do that.

Second, I would not be opposed to the relocating them to another part of the city. I would really talk about what is the new technologies that you would bring in into certain parts of those industries which can move to cleaner technological systems. And what kind of subsidies should the state give for those industries to move out of polluting industries towards cleaner technologies. The trouble with and the reason why the courts can't get into all this is the fact that you have a state whichis completely incapable of being able to deal with it. The situation in Delhi today is that the government does not even have a list ofindustries which are polluting. It doesn't know which industries theyare. It doesn't know what kind of pollution is being created. It doesn't know if those industries are legal or illegal. So therefore,what does the court do in that situation? It essentially gave the government from 1996 up to 1999 to evolve a better policy and to talkabout relocating the industries which were polluting to an industrialstate and to shut down the illegal units operating in the city. Thegovernment did nothing. And therefore, in a contempt of court petition,the court moved this year and said, “This is a contempt of court. We gave you an order three years ago. You've done nothing. Now close down all the industries.”

Now,I don't see what's wrong with that. That's good governance. Either the state moves, works with people and says, “Well, what's the policy ahead? Let's find a sensible way of moving ahead. In a way that we will not have pollution and we will also protect the livelihoods ofworkers.” But it's not done in that manner. And to be able to discount pollution and saying its pollution only affects the rich is one of the most silly things today. I mean if you look at the rates at which cancer is growing in a city like Delhi, it is frightening. We have the highest blood cancer rates in all metros of India. And only 30% of the cancers which are diagnosed, are even treated in a city like Delhi because people are just too poor to afford treatment. So what you're having today is a high order of pollution load. You're seeing health impact. And you're going to have to do something about it. We got a letter from a school recently saying that they were located next to oneof these factories. They had a problem because they had been writing to all the government officials but nobody was listening to them. And the children were fainting almost every second day because of pollution. Sowe sent one of our reporters to find out what was happening. It was ghastly. It was one of those plastic recycling units, which is what a lot of the units are that have been closed down to date. A plastic recycling unit where all the toxic fumes were let out. And they had a school next door and they were let into the school and at the school the children literally fainted. So my colleague Anil Agarwal is on an authority of the Supreme Court which then ordered the closure of certain factories and they went and closed this factory. Of course, two weeks later, when they called the inspector and they said, “Well, what happened? We ordered the factory closed.” He said, “No sir. It's not closed.“ “Why is it not closed?” “Because the factory's illegal. And to be able to close it on the pollution laws, we would first have to legalize it.” So we can't close it.

And this is a big issue in India. I don't think we're dealing with it well. And I'm not justifying, but I don't think we're dealing with it very sensibly. This is not the way sensible policy making is done, that you shut down factories. But on the other hand, it's also not sensible policy making that we just allow illegal factories to mushroom whatever they want, to allow pollution to go on and you allow things to just go on. And even if the court says something, the government does nothing about it simply because of workers' rights.

Question from the Audience

It has been my experience in Asia that the environmental degradation has a bigger impact on the poor than on the rich. In your talk, you're suggesting that there's a need to leapfrog technologies but there are obstacles in that. One is finance and labor and where will the money come from in that and the other thing is the time scales and it just seems that it is faster than the politicians, the policymakers and the  leaders today can keep up with it. And so I was wondering if you could comment on that.

Sunita Narain

That's a really tough thing. This is exactly the point. It's the same kind of syndrome. The sense that so what if it's pollution as long as we're giving people work. And that's really the politicians' mind frame.What's been very interesting, though, in Delhi is that no politician issaying that they will not shut down polluting units. On the other hand,of course, every politician is going to town against Supreme Court on this order, saying workers and all the other issues. Very tough to change the political mindset. We have been definitely trying to bring about that change by showing the linkages between pollution and health. Because that's a very critical area to be able to understand. And hopefully the trigger of the change will come about when people feel it's important for their health.

Just to give you an example, the Supreme Court had ordered that these buses would be taken off the road if they would not be converted to CNG. Now, again, the order was given three years ago. The government was given enough time but they did nothing. So the day before the date ran out they put in an application saying they couldn't do it and they wanted more time. And, we had been building up a lot of pressure in Delhi because of air pollution. So the hearing took place, and the judges said: “No we won't give you more time. If you have to take the buses off the road, you take the buses off the road. But you had enough time, you've done nothing.” So, 1,800 public buses were taken off the road overnight because of the Supreme Court.

But this is what was interesting. There was no outrage against environment or against the Supreme Court. There was an outrage as to why didn't the government work faster. I was on a TV program -- a phone-in program --I did three of them that week. First time I went, I was terrified because phone-in programs with that kind of issue--the very next day after this order had taken place--I was really expecting to be lynched on the program. “How can you ask for this? What's going to happen tous? We're going to suffer. Our buses are off the road.” Very interesting--every question to me was: “Why didn't the government do something in time? It was given time to do it, why didn't they do it? The health of our children is important for us as well. We will not compromise on this.” And this was a fascinating change that took place. It's interesting, because, I don't know how many of you have been to Delhi, but if you come to Delhi, and you come to Delhi in this time, you just cannot afford to not think about pollution. You choke and wheeze -- you choke and wheeze all the time. Can you imagine being in a city where pollution levels are at this level? You can just feel it all the time. It's bad. So, there's no way on Earth that people don't realize what's happening. And then you make the link to say, “Well, you see that dirty air but that's what it's doing to your child's health. That's what it's doing in terms of respiratory diseases.” Now, in the last three or four years, more and more data is coming out to show that hospital admissions go up big-time in winter months, you see major cases of childhood asthma increasing in Delhi. I talked about high cancer levels, blood-cancer levels in Delhi -- it's showing up in terms of how people are now responding to situations of pollution.

It will take a lot more time. And I keep -- for me the big issue, therefore, is how do you build capacity outside government to be able to build up this public pressure? One of the biggest problems in India really is that we have literally a conspiracy of silence. If there are high Benzene levels in Delhi nobody tells you that there are high Benzene levels because people really get scared. If you have pesticide in your food, you're not told that you have pesticide in your food because -- why do you need to know? So what we're doing, in fact, is we're setting up a lab now in the public domain. We're actually forced to now set up a full-fledged lab to monitor PM 2.5 and to do pesticide testing, simply because that data is just not available. And if you don't have data, you don't have public outcry. People don't know what they are dealing with and if they don't know what they're dealing with than what do they fight? What do they ask for? And that's why we call this really a conspiracy of silence. And that's been a big issue for us is really how to fight that. To me, the linkages have to be made clear. People have to be told what the cost is. And then, they should be allowed to make some decisions. But they must know what the cost is. Today, the issue of the cost to the health is just not an issue because the data doesn't exist.

Question from the Audience

How do you do outreach?

Sunita Narain

All sorts of ways. We even take out ads in newspapers. We took out an ad when we were doing pollution campaign. We took out a half-page ad in the major daily times of India and we said, “Roll down the window for a bulletproof car Mr. Prime Minister. The security threat is not the gun. It is the air of Delhi.” And then we gave him an agenda for what we wanted done. And we also had an open letter to him. But also what we did was to give people his home phone and fax number and we said,“Phone into him and fax him and tell him how outraged you are.” And it was amazing. This happened a week before the Delhi election. And he really got a number of calls. And because it was his home number, he got quite irritated as well--so we do a lot of things.

We have a news magazine which goes out. As I said, it's knowledge-based activism, so we do a lot of research. And it is that research we then constantly pick out. So we would do press conferences for instance. Just today we're doing a press conference in Delhi because we are very angry with the fact that the government isn't moving fast enough on this moving towards compressed natural gas, buses. So we're doing a press conference to put pressure on government. We do press conferences. We do public meetings, we do a lot of work with the medical community to try and get them understanding the linkages. They, then, go out and talk to their patients.

Question from the Audience

Do you have any partnerships with corporations because they're part of the solution you know. Unfortunately.

Sunita Narain

We have very good relationships with corporations, but on our terms--I'm very clear about that. I can't deal with corporations that everyone is talking about partnership but it is a completely unequal partnerships. It has to be partnerships of equality. I'm very clear. With our automobile campaign, when they sued us for $25 million--and they had to withdraw in a week--it only happened because we wrote back to them and said, “Wonderful. This is the best thing you could've done for us and we'll see you in court.” And that image of us-- that we're difficult, we're independent, we're critical. We say what we want to say --remains strong even when we sit down at the table with them. That's also the strength again of India-- we can do this. We can say all this publicly. We can do all this publicly, and not face any problems atall, in terms of government or political pressures and things like that.

So, our relationships with corporations--we have a project to rate industry in terms of the environmental impact. And that's our one area where we're really supposed to partner with them because we rate them. But it's a voluntary program so we rate them even if they don't want to be rated. And, we have an independent inspection system where we advertise for people from our readers and we say, “If anyone wants to go in and inspect a factory, we'll pay you a 1,000 rupees and we'll train you how to do it. Go and inspect.” And we got an incredible response. We went out and we sent all these people inspecting factories and they went out and they were very interested -- the young people that went out and took photographs of the diversional channels where they were diverting their effluents and things like that. And they sent us all this. S oindustry knows that we get our data even if don't want this.

Comment from the Audience

 

So you act as a watch dog group.

Sunita Narain

Yes. We're very proud of the fact that we are the watch dog group. We are fairly influential, but we make sure that however influential we are,we don't lose our edge. I tell all my colleagues who come and work with us that the biggest strength of CSE is its anger. It should not lose its anger.

Shyama Venkateswar

I hate to break this up but some of us must go back to work. But I want to thank Sunita for your passion, really. I think if there's anything we can take from this it's just your zeal. I thank you very much.

December 14, 2000
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